Sanford vacation, hunting trip questioned

Panel charges governor with 37 ethics violations

gnsmith@thestate.comNovember 23, 2009 

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford

MIC SMITH/AP

  • 37 charges

    The S.C. Ethics Commission has charged Gov. Mark Sanford with breaking 37 state ethics laws. The charges, released Monday, allege:

    18: Instances in which Sanford flew first- or business class - in violation of state law, which requires an urgent reason to use a pricey ticket. Most of the flights were to Europe, Asia and South America, including a 2008 trip Sanford extended so he could see his Argentine lover.

    10: Occasions Sanford used almost $3,000 in campaign money to pay for personal expenses, which is barred by state law. The largest single expense - $864.90 in November 2008 - was to attend a Republican governors meeting in Miami and to pay for a hunting trip in Ireland.

    9: Instances Sanford or family members used state aircraft for personal travel, which is barred by law, including: flying to GOP events in Anderson and Greenville; the Aiken birthday party of a campaign contributor; and flying from West Virginia to Georgia for a vacation.

    What's next?

    Impeachment: The impeachment resolution seeks to remove the two-term Republican governor, who cannot run for re-election again, for disappearing from the state for five days in June. The married governor subsequently said he had been in Argentina, visiting his lover.

    The subcommittee hopes to finish its work by Christmas. Its recommendation then would go to the full House Judiciary Committee. If that committee votes to impeach Sanford, the resolution would go to the full House. If the House passes the resolution, it would go to the S.C. Senate, which would try Sanford. If convicted, he would be removed from office.

    However, impeachment is unlikely to get that far. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said last week he did not think there were sufficient grounds - known then - to remove fellow Republican Sanford. Democrats also are divided over Sanford's fate.

    Ethics charges: A panel of the State Ethics Commission will hear charges against Sanford for three dozen possible ethics violations, which carry a possible fine of $74,000.

    That hearing will be held early next year. However, no date has been set. Sanford could appeal any unfavorable decision by the three-member panel to the full commission.

    Wild card: S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, a Republican who is running to succeed Sanford as governor, is investigating and, if he thinks it is warranted, could bring criminal charges.

The State Ethics Commission has charged Gov. Mark Sanford with breaking state ethics laws 37 times, including using state planes for family trips, spending campaign funds on a hunting trip and flying first class, instead of coach, while on state travel.

The commission, which last week wrapped up its preliminary, three-month-long investigation into allegations against the embattled governor, released the charges to the public Monday.

The commission's findings have been eagerly awaited by legislators, who are deciding whether to oust Sanford from office before his term ends in January 2011.

A subcommittee of the S.C. House will consider an impeachment resolution for the first time today.

The Ethics Commission charges allege:

- Sanford flew business or first class 18 times between 2005 and 2009 while on state business. Those trips included travel to Europe, Asia and South America. State law requires officials to choose the most economical fare unless there is an urgent reason to do otherwise.

- Sanford used state aircraft for personal travel nine times between 2005 and 2008, including a book signing, a birthday party for a contributor, a son's sporting event and a family getaway to Georgia.

- On 10 occasions, Sanford took money from his campaign account, donated by supporters, and improperly spent it on personal uses, including an Irish hunting trip and a GOP governors meeting in Miami. The money in question, a total of $2,940.68, was spent between 2006 and 2009.

Sanford was cleared by the commission for failing to report private plane trips given to him by friends and political allies. Sanford's attorney told the commission the governor will disclose all of the trips. "With this amendment ... Gov. Sanford will have complied, albeit late, with the filing requirements" of state law, the commission said.

The charges against Sanford will be aired at a hearing of a three-member Ethics Commission panel, to be held sometime in January.

During that hearing, Sanford's attorneys will mount his defense.

The governor's lawyers have characterized the accusations as technical and minor.

Sanford's attorney, Butch Bowers, said Monday: "We are confident that we will be able to address each of these questions, none of which constitutes findings of guilt and none of which we believe rise anywhere near to the traditional standard of impeachment. We look forward to working with the commission and resolving this matter."

Ultimately, the commissioners - appointed by Sanford but confirmed by the state Senate - will vote whether Sanford is guilty of the ethics violations. Sanford could be cleared or fined up to $74,000.

Sanford also could face criminal charges.

A spokesman said Monday that S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster is reviewing the Ethics Commission report to determine whether charges are warranted.

WHETHER TO IMPEACH

The governor faces trouble on another front as well.

Today, a subcommittee of House lawmakers will hold their first meeting to discuss impeaching the governor.

Four House members introduced a bill last week to oust the governor from office, saying he abandoned the state for five days in June to secretly visit his lover in Argentina.

Abandoning his duties is grounds for impeachment, no matter the ethics charges, state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, said Monday.

"What matters to me," Delleney said, "is his absence from the state without giving anyone notice and being AWOL for five days, leaving no established chain of command or protocol for the exercise of the executive authority of the state and his preconceived deceit and cover-up of his whereabouts using his staff, who are state employees, to mislead public officials of South Carolina and the public of South Carolina. That, coupled with the shame and disgrace he brought to the reputation of South Carolina."

Sanford has brushed off calls to resign from GOP House members and senators, who control the Legislature, saying he has not broken any laws and has been a good steward of taxpayer money.

FLYING FIRST CLASS

Four of the first- or business- class flights cited by the Ethics Commission involved a 2008 state Commerce Department trip to Brazil.

Sanford, a married, two-term governor, asked that the economic development trip be extended to include Argentina, where he saw his lover.

The governor has reimbursed the state $3,300 for the Argentina part of the trip. He has said he spent no other tax money to see his lover, whom he first met in 2001 at an open air dance spot in Uruguay and has called his "soul mate."

The governor's defenders also have said previous governors flew first class on the state's dime. However, the commission says two of those governors used private money to pay for more expensive tickets.

In the Ethics Commission report released Monday, the state Commerce Department was cited as saying it is a long-held practice that top state officials fly business-class on international trips so they can arrive rested.

But the commission fired back that, in many instances, Sanford had a day to recover before any meetings. He also flew business-class to return to Columbia.

Sanford's defenders also have said the state Comptroller General's office signed off on the tickets and the Legislative Audit Council never objected to them.

However, the Ethics Commission said the comptroller's office did "not second guess" decisions, instead paying "the bills which are submitted." The Audit Council told the commission it did not look into airfares.

PERSONAL TRIPS?

The Ethics Commission also charges Sanford misused state aircraft to fly to political events, including an Anderson County GOP dinner, a Republican House caucus reception in Greenville and the Aiken birthday party of a campaign contributor.

The commission also cited a number of flights on state planes as personal, violating state law, including:

- A 2006 flight from North Myrtle Beach to Columbia, after which Sanford got a haircut

- A 2006 trip by Sanford and his family to Georgia from West Virginia for a "personal weekend"

- A 2007 flight from North Myrtle Beach to Columbia for Sanford to attend a son's sporting event

- A 2008 flight to Myrtle Beach - with his wife and a son - for the opening of the Hard Rock Park entertainment complex

Sanford has denied using state aircraft for personal reasons. For example, he said he gets his hair cut at a discount chain that does not accept reservations, meaning he had no reason to fly back to Columbia for a trim.

CAMPAIGN CASH

The commission also charges that on 10 occasions, Sanford reimbursed himself for personal expenses out of campaign money.

These reimbursements violate state ethics law because they were not related to Sanford's campaign or duties as governor, the commission said.

Also, Sanford failed to provide receipts for the expenses. Ethics rules require a campaign to keep receipts dating back five years.

The expenses include $864.90 for a 2008 Republican governors meeting in Miami and a hunting trip to Dublin, Ireland.

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